Inclusion is critical to agile decision-making. Camelia Ram outlines how leaders can give their people a sense of agency.
Diversity and inclusion are intrinsic to effective decision-making practices in the face of uncertainty. In a world of relentless change, individuals at all levels in an organization must develop the confidence to make decisions at pace with little or no information on potential outcomes.
This requires three shifts: in how choices are framed, information is gathered, and outcomes are evaluated. Firstly, in order to frame the choice to be made under uncertainty, it is more important to ask questions than seek answers. Asking questions allows different ideas to be configured in ways that foster new ones.
The second shift is from gathering information in order to predict the future, to gathering information to create the future through iteration. Making many small decisions in pursuit of making an idea better requires openness to radically different ways of doing things and a willingness to change our mind. And the third shift is to move from optimizing outcomes for complex choices, to being able to sustain the adverse consequences of multiple smaller choices.
These three shifts imply that making decisions at pace under uncertainty encourages us to behave in a manner that invites curiosity, imagination and experimentation. In other words, being agile requires us to adopt an inclusive mindset. What are some of the practical ways in which organizations can achieve these shifts?
1 Fostering space to ask those tough questions
Tough questions ask how we could be wrong. A scientific approach is designed to ask the tough questions by seeking evidence to prove a hypothesis wrong, and it can be applied effectively in business. For example, Amazon’s approach to new product development confronts teams with a potential end-result for reaction. A press release announcing the finished product is shared with the team. It describes the customer’s problem, how current solutions are failing, and why the new product will address this problem. It provides an effective, non-threatening way for the team to reflect on what is being built.
When asking tough questions, leaders must create the conditions for others to express their views. This may entail being intentionally quiet, pausing for a couple of seconds after asking questions, and regularly asking for feedback. It signals a desire to learn and an acknowledgement that the leader does not have all the answers. This may be uncomfortable, but it generates commitment and engages others to act on issues. Take Salesforce’s internal “Airing of Grievances” tool, where a live stream discussion has been used to help the chief executive engage with issues facing the company’s engineers. The CEO’s decision to engage with uncomfortable topics encouraged the wider leadership team to ask questions about what was going on in the business, instead of shutting down discussion.
2 Creating the future, not predicting it
Uncertainty means that there are multiple possible outcomes from our decisions: the likelihood of each cannot necessarily be predicted. That makes it necessary to explore choices in terms of the possibilities they offer, while being able to face the consequences of unpredictable conditions. This requires a shift from a programmatic planning approach to an iterative approach based on making the next best move with the information available.
The Atherton twins, acrobats in Cirque du Soleil, have explained how an open mind to creating their act has led to refinements from unexpected sources. Andrew and Kevin Atherton train in a gym that is surrounded by Cirque du Soleil staff in the casting, contracts and medical teams. The twins are exposed while trying new stunts: their colleagues observe what they are doing and offer suggestions on how to make it better. This often means that the act evolves in unpredictable directions: the twins estimate that just 2% of what they try makes it to the stage.
3 Building resilience through psychological safety and diversity
Stable environments lend themselves to optimization, but unstable, unpredictable environments require a shift to prudent use of available resources and an ability to withstand losses. From a human resource perspective, teams comprising multiple and diverse strengths, bound by a singular purpose, are vital to help manage risk.
The value of psychological safety in driving creativity is well-documented. Knowing that expressing ideas, questions, concerns, or admitting mistakes will not result in punishment or humiliation fosters willingness to reframe, imagine, improve, and rethink. Beyond Google’s well-known study on the topic, US multinational technology conglomerate Cisco has also found that encouraging people to play to their strengths and having shared values contributes to the sense of safety required to innovate and deliver.
— Camelia Ram holds a PhD in operational research from the London School of Economics.